John C. Whitehead, HBS 1947, retired as co-chairman of Goldman Sachs in 1984, then served as United States Deputy Secretary of State under President Ronald Reagan. In 1985 he was awarded the Presidential Citizens Medal. Mr. Whitehead is a former Chairman of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York’s Board of Directors and a former director of the New York Stock Exchange. He also was Chairman of the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation and the World Trade Center Memorial Foundation. Mr. Whitehead currently serves as Chairman of the Goldman Sachs Foundation. His autobiography is titled, A Life in Leadership: From D-Day to Ground Zero.
Why did you attend HBS, and in what ways has it helped or influenced your career?
After college, I served in the Navy during World War II and after three years in the Navy I was assigned as an instructor at HBS teaching Navy Accounting. [The MBA program at HBS was shut down from 1943- 1945 due to World War II.] While teaching at HBS, a professor persuaded me to become a student and that business was a career more suitable for me than the college teaching I was planning on. Because I was on the faculty, I resigned my faculty position, moved out of faculty housing and into student housing. I also had to start eating in the student mess hall instead of the faculty club.
At HBS, I had trouble getting used to the fact that there were no answers in the back of the book. No right answer was being taught, but there was room for more than one point of view with this method. You had to pick your position and defend it.
How would you describe your personal theory of management or management style?
I would describe myself as a quiet leader, not a strong aggressive leader like some others. A more aggressive style works for some people, but it doesn’t fit with my personality style. I lead by example and by watching. I think some people probably could be better leaders if they used this style.
HBS seeks to develop leaders who make a difference in the world. What advice would you give students at HBS today?
I see too many graduates drop out of the leadership path too early. For example, they work five years, have risen to vice president, have a house in Greenwich, are married, and have kids-life is great. Then they receive an offer from their boss to run the Chicago branch for the company. After thinking about moving to Chicago and having to start over, they decide to turn down the offer. That disappoints me because that person could have run the Chicago office, then the company, and then become a Senator, for example. Don’t drop out before your potential is realized. As soon as you get to the next level, set your eye on the next target and keep going. You don’t know what you can achieve if you don’t try.
What advice do you have to balance leading in your private career and leading in public or philanthropic activities?
It is a great ambition to have a variety of experiences in life. Business, government, and non-profit work are all fun, different, interesting, and important. Life with activities in all three is a life well spent. In government and non-profit, we need leaders in these more difficult jobs. People need to go there or we will suffer as a nation.
Also, I have to mention how proud I am of a training program I helped start for leadership in non-profit organizations (Mr. Whitehead helped start the Social Enterprise Initiative at HBS). It represented a new area of education that didn’t exist before. Now every business school has these sorts of programs, but the area started here (at HBS).